Michael McDonald Talks New Album 'Wide Open,' His Favorite Backing Vocal Gigs & Working With Steely Dan, Van Halen and Thundercat

Michael Mcdonald
Timothy White

Michael Mcdonald

Michael McDonald has a lot to say on Wide Open, his first album of original material in 17 years, out Friday (Sept. 15). Even he didn’t realize just how much until after he recorded the songs.  

“A lot of them have a deeper resonance that I wasn’t aware of at the time of writing them,” he tells Billboard. “I didn’t know what the songs were really about on a personal level until the album was finished... Of course, my feeling is I should have been able to say those things sooner than now, but I kind of feel that way about any kind of emotional or spiritual growth. It sure has taken long enough for me to get that understanding of myself or of things around me.”

The former Doobie Brother has caught the eye of a younger audience from working with Thundercat, Solange, and Grizzly Bear in recent years. As he discusses below, collaborating with other artists -- whether in the 1970s or 2010s -- has always been a great source of joy for him.  

Many of these songs revealed their meaning to you after you wrote them. What did you discover?  

For me, most of these songs [on Wide Open] have to do with sobriety, that journey in my life of getting sober. I don’t like to elaborate on recovery, just because there’s a tradition in the program that I still believe in that asks that we not do that. I realized that a lot of the songs, I put them in different context, storyline wise, but if they’re about anything, they’re about my coming to terms with my living out in the open and learning to live without substances to fill the hole, without self-medicating.

Do you have a sobriety date? 

It was 1986. I’ve spent every inch of that time learning how to live in the world and walk through things, just with what I can bring to it sober. If I ever really had a problem in life, I was it. It wasn’t really what happened to me, what I did next was where the problem began. That’s a long learning curve. As simple as it sounds, it never ends. I think every ounce of pain in just living always ends up being the best thing that happened to me. It’s always a growth period. I learn at the speed of pain.

Songs like “Half Truth,”“Hail Mary” or “Blessing in Disguise” have a sense of humility that makes sense given what you’ve just said. 

I write about humility, because it’s something I hope I one day actually possess [Laughs.]. 

The provocative lyric “Say what you want about the gays,” opens the song “Free A Man," which looks at people who have been repressed. It’s a rare overtly social statement from you. Can you talk about that one? 

Richard Stekol wrote that one. Richard, to me, is one of the great American songwriters that ever was. I put him on a level of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, largely unheralded [compared to those guys], but every bit as poetic and insightful. I remember hearing the song and thinking, “God, I love that song.”

It’s the conversation that we are having as a global society. This is the low ceiling that we put on ourselves, and this is all about those ways we seek to control anything that isn’t like us. I thought it was such a timely lyric. It’s also a fun song to play live because it’s kind of a jam, much more than a lot of things I write.

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen recently told the Wall Street Journal that he had to keep touring because he could no longer make a living from record sales or streaming. How about you? 

Absolutely. We used to tour to promote an album and the album would be that great source of revenue, potentially, if we were lucky. Some of us were very fortunate over the years to get on the radio, and touring was a means to an an end.

I don’t mind playing more -- I would do it anyway -- but the revenue shift has really occurred. Now, you make an album almost to give it away, and hopefully grab the public’s attention to come see you live. I’m picking a random number, but you’re lucky if you gross $1 million on a tour, if you make $33,000 in your pocket after commissions, salaries, plane fares, gear, trucks, busses, daily salaries, all these things that come into play. It makes it a very cost-intensive endeavor. Everybody’s feeling the squeeze. Things that were once a livelihood are now becoming an expensive hobby. Musicians aren’t alone in that. 

What has it been like recording and playing with Thundercat? 

Working with Thundercat was really a thrill. Steve Bruner [a.k.a. Thundercat] is an amazingly talented kid. He reminds me of when you watch stunts in movies. It used to be the guy who could fall off a horse well and not break his neck was the one who got paid the most -- now they’re doing stuff you can’t even imagine. With musicians, I sometimes feel that way. Playing with Steve and his band, which is a trio, I try not to be the fat kid jumping in the pool splashing everybody else. I try to keep up.

They're just totally always 150 percent on. I don’t think Steve ever stops playing. It’s rare in the course of the day that he puts that bass down. It’s infectious to be around that.

You're so famous for your backing vocals. What do you remember about recording “Peg” with Steely Dan? 

It wasn’t an easy part for me to do. Probably a much more schooled vocalist than myself, like the Andrews Sisters, would have sung that part live, doubled it and been out of there. But me, because the harmonies are so close, I had to have them turn off the other part so I could sing the new part without hearing the other part, because I couldn’t sing that close to myself harmonically without failing badly.  So that was difficult, more because of the nature of the part.

Donald [Fagen] and Walter [Becker] were very patient with me. Hearing it back with all the parts in was really thrilling, because Donald and Walter were probably the first people to use my voice that way.

What’s your favorite non-Steely Dan song that you sang backing vocals on?  

“This Is It” with Kenny Loggins. It was always fun for me to sing with Kenny -- still is. He’s such a phenomenal singer and has such great ideas in terms of backgrounds. One of my favorite sessions with Kenny was a Jimmy Webb track that he and I sang on called “Old Wing Mouth,” [for] a solo album that Jimmy did in the late ‘70s. He left it up to us to come up with the parts, where to come in, what intervals to sing, how it would sound doubled. I remember really loving the sound of the backgrounds on that track.

Pat Simmons and I always had a great blend together. We did the background vocals on a Little Feat track called “Red Streamliner,” and that was great fun. I always really loved the way it turned out. It was one of the things where we just showed up and [Little Feat co-founder] Billy Payne was directing us and we were pleasantly surprised by the blend we got. On a lot of the Doobie Brothers stuff, Pat and I always seemed to blend together for backgrounds. 

A lot of people are unaware that you co-wrote Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “I’ll Wait.” What was that like?

[Producer] Teddy Templeton had sent me the track— just the guitars, drums and bass and synths. I think there might have been some melody in the chorus. I got together with David Lee Roth and finished out the lyrics, and the rest is history. We were sitting in Teddy’s office and it was an interesting experience.

I couldn’t help but feel a little out of my element. Those guys were much of a rock band, but Ted always brought those opportunities to me that I really appreciated. 

You really were all over the place in the ‘70s and ‘80s, beyond your Doobie Bros. success. 

I had been criticized in the ‘70s for singing on too many records. That was really largely what I did. I was a background singer in Hollywood. A chance to sing with some of the greatest background singers ever, I felt like it was a real feather in my cap as a vocalist to be able to hang on those dates. I sang backgrounds with people you wouldn’t believe: James Ingram, Luther Vandross, Howard Hewitt, Phillip Ingram, all on one session. It was amazing the cast of characters that would do backgrounds.

I think we all did it for the same reason -- to keep our ear to the ground to hear what other people were doing. To be involved before it was actually mixed was always a neat experience, most of the time we weren’t getting paid. I still to this day always enjoy it -- the opportunity to work with Thundercat, Grizzly Bear, it’s great, interesting music that I love being able to be some small part of.